Anvita Dutt’s latest film Qala was released on Netflix last December to a lot of fanfare and appreciation from netizens and critics alike. The film stars Tripti Dimri in the lead role and a silver screen debut for Babil Khan (son of late Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan) alongside Swastika Mukherjee, Varun Grower and Swanand Kirkire. Set in the 1940s, the film’s plot revolves around the life of a young singer Qala Manjushree (played by Tripti Dimri), her troubled childhood, her rise to fame and her tragic downfall. The narration in this period drama moves back and forth between flashbacks and the present. The film has been lauded for its aesthetic cinematography, brilliant acting, production design and soulful music, taking viewers on a journey back in time.
Dynamics around gender roles, hierarchy, power, stardom and legacy are some important themes in the film. However, the central focus remains on mental health. In the public sphere, the film has helped initiate important conversations around parenting and rigid societal notions on gender and how that affects the creative pursuits and psyche of growing individuals. By choosing to tell the story against the backdrop of a historical, fictional setting, the director aims to address pressing issues of today’s society.
In the opening sequence, we are introduced to Qala, a young Bollywood singer who has won the prestigious ‘Golden Vinyl’ award. As she addresses the Press, a reporter recollects how her mother wanted to launch her son in Calcutta some years ago. Qala, visibly distressed, responds by saying she doesn’t have a brother. A flashback follows when Qala’s mother, Uma, gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl); however, the boy is stillborn.
Uma (played by Swastika Mukherjee) is the widow of a Hindustani Music maestro living in the remote Debisthan region of Himachal Pradesh. She longs for a son who would carry the family’s musical legacy forward. From the beginning, Qala is trained in Sangeet Shastra, but Uma is never satisfied with her daughter’s efforts. The dynamics between the mother and the daughter affect Qala negatively, who goes out of her way to vie for her mother’s affection and respect. In that regard, the film has effectively portrayed how parenting affects children’s mental health from an early age. However, such a portrayal, which others have discussed at length, is not my sole concern in this review. Instead, I want to engage with how this period drama lacks historical substance and tends to ignore the realities of the social milieu in which it is located.
‘Artists have no caste or religion’: An empty claim
Under a lot of pressure and criticism from her mother, a young Qala rehearses for her performance in front of Ustad Mansur Khan, a maestro of Hindustani classical music, at an event in Solan, Himachal Pradesh. Initially, it is supposed to be Qala’s main performance, but Ustad informs the mother that a local orphan boy, Jagan (played by Babil Khan), will also be performing. Uma is a bit disappointed with the news, but Ustad reiterates his singing talent and tells Uma that he can cancel the performance if she has any objection to the boy’s caste or birth status. To this, Uma replies, “No Ustad ji, an artist has no caste or religion”. Qala’s performance is well received by the Ustad, who praises her melodious voice and hard work. However, Jagan’s mesmerising voice draws the mother’s attention and shapes the story further. Subsequently, Jagan is adopted and trained by Uma, who ignores Qala completely. Jagan is shown as a singer destined for greatness who lives and breathes music.
Amidst all the euphoria around Jagan’s music and his excellence, the filmmaker ignores the caste-based nature of Indian society and its impact on the music and recreational spheres. Since its inception, classical music in India has been a hegemony of Upper-caste Hindus and a form of Brahmanical performance to appease their deities. Historically, the oppressed castes have been systematically kept out of this realm, owing to puritan cultural notions of caste Hindus and how the mere presence of oppressed castes, let alone performance, is considered blasphemous.
With respect to this, one wonders how a lower-caste individual of a darker complexion, that too an orphan in the 20th century, could thrive in the world of music dominated by Brahmins as depicted in the film. Here, it is imperative to refute Uma’s claim because, in the normative Indian society, an artist could only be a Brahmin or an Upper caste individual. It seems that the filmmaker deems it unimportant to draw on how important caste as a vantage point is, and how the gated structure of the music industry would never allow a Jagan to exist, let alone thrive, within it.
A large part of the film is set in Himachal Pradesh. However, the presence of Hindustani Classical music Gharana in a region historically known for its folklore and diverse music seems out of place. Apart from the snow-clad mountains and the dimly lit mansion in the middle of nowhere (a sight similar to horror films), Himachal remains largely unexplored in the film. The only reference to Himachal is in the form of a joint passed on to the visitors (khaas hamare pahado se hai, aapke liye), recasting the stereotypical image of Himachal Pradesh as a hotbed of recreational drugs.
For a long time, scholars and literature enthusiasts alike have asked for a particular focus on pronunciation and delivery of dialogues, especially in the case of Urdu. However, in this film, the very forceful use of Urdu is displayed with little regard for talaffuz (pronunciation or articulation). Varun Grower’s experience in Urdu and Hindi literature reflects in the film as he does justice to the role of the famous lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri with his calmness and grace. Today in the era of majoritarian politics, it is important to reiterate the integral role of Urdu in Bollywood, more so in period dramas. Also, interestingly, the frequent use of English in daily conversation by characters makes one wonder how the content is tailor-made for the Urban Indian population, where realities (albeit historical) are tweaked and stereotypes recast to make it more appealing to the audience.
Gender and powerplay: A Problematic portrayal
From an early age, Uma instils the rigid societal notions around art, expression and purity in her daughter, emphasising how rules are different for boys and girls. She expects Qala to have Pandit (maestro) in front of her name and not a Bai (courtesan). Such expectations only worsen the mother’s and daughter’s bond, as Qala helplessly looks to create a space for herself in a deeply patriarchal setup. Due to Jagan’s rise to popularity, Qala’s dream of becoming a singer remains distant. With the constant pressure to prove her worth, she suffers a mental breakdown and eventually becomes jealous of Jagan and his destined fame. Under severe mental turmoil, Qala tries to gain the confidence of filmmakers from Calcutta and woos them using her beauty and charm. Subsequently, after establishing herself in Bollywood, she faces sexual harassment at the hands of a filmmaker who manipulates and uses her. The theme of workplace harassment is noteworthy, given how unsafe public spaces are for women in India, even at that time. But by portraying Qala as someone ready to go to any lengths to make it big in a deeply hierarchical structure like the film industry, it becomes problematic as she is somewhere seen as an initiator for giving sexual favours. The filmmaker could have developed a different storyline where Qala is not the one sexualising herself in front of these lascivious and powerful male figures of the industry.
In conclusion, by prioritising the notion of mental health and negating the realities of a particular era, the film lacks nuance. It fails at its attempt to deliver a multi-layered narration, which could have informed and educated the viewers about music and its social history in India further.
The soulful music is a saving grace for the film, and as the masses are hooked to the music and its aesthetic visuals on Instagram reels and other social media platforms, Qala is deemed a success.
Abdullah Kazmi is a student of Media Studies at the University of Hyderabad.